The teacher’s role in PBL (PBL Series Part 4)

The teacher’s role in an Project Based Learning (PBL) classroom is unique.  I’m still figuring it out – and probably will be for years to come.  That being said, I’m confident about a few things the teacher must do to make PBL click on all cylinders.

the teacher has to juggle many hats in the PBL classroom

the teacher has to juggle many hats in the PBL classroom

Here are 10 things a teacher should do to facilitate PBL effectively:

  1. Find a hook and deliver it well.  Grab the students’ imaginations and leave them with lots of questions, wanting to learn more.
  2. Set an engaging, thought provoking driving question but leave plenty of room for inquiry.  If you set the driving question, let the students decide how they will answer it.  Better still, let the students generate the driving question.
  3. Gather materials that the students can’t get for themselves.  Nothing kills inquiry quicker than a curious kid not having any way to answer their questions.  This include resources
  4. Serve as a mentor for individual students and small groups.  Help them figure out how to complete their project.  Help them to see themselves.
  5. Facilitate whole class discussions.  When students are working in small groups or pairs for an extended period of time, there must be whole class activities as well.  This maintains the learning community of the group.  Use discussion protocols like socratic seminars, rotating fishbowls and the like to get eveyone involved.
  6. Provide sufficient structure and support so that students don’t get stuck.  Help them to plan, monitor progress, and assess their results.  Keep the students focused on the big picture.  Remind them often of the driving question and revisit milestone dates and final product dates daily.
  7. Help students to determine success criteria for each project.  Facilitate analysis of various models that will help them to see what an end product might look like.  If you feel a rubric is needed, have them create it.
  8. Provide descriptive feedback.  Don’t evaluate their work in progress but give them information to help them see how to move forward.  Don’t let them bog down for too long.
  9. Recruit an audience.  Students should be presenting their learning to an audience outside of the classroom.  Invite parents, community members, other staff members, district administrators, local university staff and students, local scientists, local business people  – anyone who may have an interest in what you are doing.
  10. Allow time for reflection, for students and for yourself.  Use that reflection to improve the next project for students and yourself.  Listen to the students very carefully and learn from them.
Photo of mathematician Ronald Graham juggling used under cc licence from the Wikimedia commons

Previous Posts in the PBL Series

Part 1 - A subtle epiphany – over planning kills engagement

Part 2 - Why my instructional approach didn’t work

Part 3 - What PBL is and what it isn’t

Blogging with students – a reflection

Eye reflectioncc license by

Eye reflection

This past year was my first experience blogging with students. It certainly had its ups and downs but was a positive experience overall for me and for my students. To read why we were blogging in science class (and why I think your students should blog) go here:  “Why Are We Blogging in Science Class?”

How I started:
In September, I set up each of my 100+ students with an Edublog of their own.  I used the tips found at The Edublogs Community and The Edublogger liberally. The gmail hack for setting up their accounts and the tip to use Google Reader to follow their blogs were great.   Actually the whole series on setting up student blogs that begins here is a must read.  I set up folders in Google Reader for each of my classes and followed all of my students’ blogs from there.  I also followed all of their comment feeds to monitor them.  All blogs were public and comments were not moderated.  I have had to remove ~50 spam blog comments this year but the process is quick and easy.

Once they were set up, I asked my students to play around in Edublogs by setting up a theme they liked and making a first post called “What I Want to Learn this Year.”  This got them familiar with the control panel and the posting process.

How it progressed:

I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted the students to do with their blogs.  I had them do a few assignments that were posted there, I had them reflect on completed projects, and I had them do extensions there.  I quickly realized that they needed to know what makes up a good blog post.  So, we brainstormed that together and I made this post:  “What Makes a Good Blog Post.”  The posts (for the most part) continued to improve.

Problems I encountered and how I addressed them:

  • Lack of computers at times – addressed by booking labs when needed and buying more computers for next year (I’ll be close to 1:1)
  • Lack of computer access at home for many students – I gave ample class time to complete assignments and plenty of extension opportunities for those who finished more quickly
  • Attendance – ample computer time and extensions (see above).  I do think that the electronic structure of my classroom with Edmodo and Edublogs made students more aware of what they had missed and more likely to catch up
  • Note: these are all problems that I had encountered before and will encounter again
  • Some students wrote too little – I left them comments with specific feedback
  • Some wrote too much – feedback comments
  • Many did not read the comments that I dutifully left them – I need to work in more regular interaction with their blogs in my class

Benefits & Successes:

  • Many students wrote much more on a blog than they ever would have written on paper
  • Students were much more willing to revise their work than they would have been with paper assignments
  • The blogs integrated photos and links to sources.  I enjoyed reading them much more than I enjoy reading lab reports or research papers
  • The blog became an excellent tool for differentiation – my class was more differentiated last year than ever before.  My faster working students were able to continue on with greater depth or extension assignments of their choice while I was able to provide more assistance to students who wanted or needed help
  • The combination of Edublogs and Edmodo (free online course management software) helped me to keep up with student work as it was posted and I provided much more specific feedback than ever before

My vision for the coming year:

The students’ blogs will be their electronic portfolio for my class.  I hope to rope in some other teachers to this as well and if I can, each student’s blog will be his or her electronic portfolio for multiple classes.  Students will create pages to demonstrate work samples and best works and reflect upon them.  They will journal along the way as well, although I won’t mandate any minimum number of posts (maybe I’ll give them a maximum).  I’m going to use the new RSS import feature in Edublogs to roll students’ posts through my blog as well.  I also hope to find time to get them reading and commenting on each others’ blogs more.  I hope to use Jing (thanks, TeachPaperless) to give student quick screencast feedback, rather that just written comments.

Eye reflection – cc license by

Student blogs

Two weeks into student blogging with Edublogs and I’m loving it!

More importantly, my students seem to be loving it.

I have 100+ kids set up with their own blogs and have had them use them for reflection on learning, reflection on products, and as a place to do written summaries of internet research.

I have been leaving them constructive comments which they’ve been using to revise their work. I definitely have seen much more willingness to revise electronic work than with paper work. I have also seen improvement in their ability to explain and justify their learning. All of this has been very exciting.

The next step is to get them leaving comments for each other. I also hope to drive traffic to their blogs so that they are receiving feedback from people outside the classroom.

The Goal
Ultimately, I see the students’ blogs as a way to create reflective ePortfolios. I will have them document and reflect on all major projects/ products. This process will have many benefits.

Publishing their work to the web also helps to provide more application of their work for an audience outside of the classroom.

Families will be able to easily access samples of their students’ work. They will even be able to provide their own feedback!

Most importantly, students are reflecting on their own work. They are explaining their learning. I am challenging them to use their reflections as a way to prove that they learned what they said they did. This has had the added benefit of forcing them to review content and skills. It also if forcing them to practice the critical skill of supporting their statements with evidence.

Overall, the first few weeks of facilitating student blogging in science has been very positive. I anticipate that it will only get better!

Application and frustration

dvp1453015_tRecently had an interesting day of collaborative planning with several of my coworkers.

The primary focus of this planning was geting staff to use the BERC STAR Protocol.  For those of you who are not familiar, the STAR Protocol is a tool used in classroom observations to reflect on one’s own practice.  In other words, I watch someone else while using the STAR Protocol to focus my observation on what research has shown to be effective, then I reflect on what I saw or did not see and how I can apply my reflections to my own classes.

I have done several of these over the past few years and found it to be a very powerful method for reflecting upon my own practice and planning ways to improve.

The interesting thing about the planning, though, was the course of discussion throughout the day.  As we discussed what works and doesn’t vis a vis current educational research, we found common ground.  We then looked at data for our school and found that the glaring weakness of our school was in application.  This is where is got interesting…

What do I mean by application?  Making connections between your classroom and the real world or students’ lives.  Having students apply their skills and knowledge to other classes/ content areas.  Having students create an authentic product for an outside audience.

Anyway, back at the ranch… we all got really excited at this point and began talking about integrated curriculum across content areas and authentic products for outside audiences.  I became highly engaged in the discussion and was really excited.  My school is finally going to get it!  What I’ve been trying so hard to do in my 5 years as a teacher!

Alas, things got too intense and people got scared.

“This might be too much for people to take on.”

“This might not work because of schedules.”

“Pacing calendars might get in the way.”

“We need to wait to get that new curriculum first.”

“We need to identify our essential standards first.”

Needless to say, the energy left the room.  We were on the brink of something truly exciting.  We let the straighjacket of “education reform” keep us from sending our students soaring.

I feel like we took the easy road.

I feel like we let our students down.

I’m not giving up though.  My students will continue to get those things in my classes – even moreso this year than ever before.  They deserve it.